Interviews start for those vying to become Pinellas County's new attorney

Interviews start Tuesday to select replacement for lontime Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett, who retired this month. He turned the office over to his chief assistant attorney. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Interviews start Tuesday to select replacement for lontime Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett, who retired this month. He turned the office over to his chief assistant attorney. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published July 11, 2017

LARGO –– Pinellas County's 12 elected leaders will perform a first on Tuesday: They will conduct public interviews of the four candidates vying to lead the Pinellas County Attorney's Office.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Legal Idol: Pinellas leaders select five candidates for county attorney's job

The Pinellas County Attorney Oversight Committee, which consists of seven county commissioners and the five county constitutional officers, will hold 90 minutes interviews with each of the four candidates starting at 9 a.m.

One of the four candidates could replace Jim Bennett who officially left the payroll last week.

The historic interview process is a culmination of the new Pinellas County Charter amendment that voters approved in November. Voters created the oversight committee to hire, fire and evaluate the county attorney. In prior years, only the county commission had the authority to make changes.

The position pays more than $215,000 a year. More than 25 candidates applied for the position.

Those include Stacey Manning, 51, the attorney for Putnam County; Reginald Osenton, 52, the city attorney for Port St. Lucie; and Phillip Sherwin, 64, who has served with the Polk County Attorney's Office, the city of Cape Coral and two other private firms.

The fourth candidate, Jewel White, 46, served as Bennett's top assistant and was appointed by the oversight committee to serve as Pinellas' interim county attorney.

And if questions from 12 members on the interview panel isn't enough, each candidate will be grilled by another set of officials immediately after the first session. The second panel consists of appointing authorities like the county administrator, the heads of the planning agency, the office of human rights and the human resources director.

Bennett served nine years as the Pinellas County attorney and left his post May 27. He collected unused vacation until July 5.

In January, Bennett, 65, announced his retirement, saying, "it's time to join his wife and family" and "to sit under our own vine and fig tree ... and to begin our next great adventure."

While elected leaders praised Bennett, he also received criticism in recent months for the way his office advised the troubled Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

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EDITORIAL: Editorial: Too much power, too little openness at Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board

The board disciplines contractors but operates without any oversight. A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that consumers and contractors alike felt unfairly treated by the board and a smaller subgroup that handles disciplinary matters. The agency also has issues addressing conflicts of interest and obeying public records law.

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Bennett had declined to discuss the advice his office had given the licensing board, citing attorney-client privilege.

His retirement triggered officials to question some benefits he received. He belongs to the state pension system, but since 2008 the county has also contributed $201,000 to his tax-deferred personal retirement account on top of that pension. He gained access to that money when he retired. Other county employees do not have the same perk.

The 12 officials will have to decide whether to give that perk to the next attorney.